The other day after I got home from my run (I use the term loosely), I got a call from the local NBC affiliate asking for a quick interview on the overall impact of "girl power" in this year's Olympics. Within ten minutes, the reporter and her cameraman were on their way.
While dashing around the house trying to figure out what to wear -- no white, no black, no patterns -- and ruing the fact that I never mastered the art of applying makeup, I did some power thinking about what the so-called "year of the woman" means to those of us who have never done a cartwheel and who were always the last to be chosen for volleyball. (Both would be me.) And what I realized is that the Olympic Games are a good metaphor for a lot of what we call real life.
Wherein we find some real lessons, especially for us women.
Lesson one: You go for the gold, girl. First, there's the good old-fashioned inspiration of the goose-bump variety. Whenever a woman excels at anything, I'm inspired -- even if it's not my field. Gabby or Missy or Kerri and Misty? Talk about motivation. And yet it's a message that goes far beyond the pool or the (faux) beach or the balance beam: Set yourself a goal, work hard, try your darnedest and anything is possible. You never know what you can do until you take that leap of faith.
For all of us, there's joy to be found in getting into the zen of it all and being totally absorbed in our passions, whether it's poetry or pole vaulting. Put yourself out there, throw yourself into your dreams one hundred percent and the message is this: You just might bring home the gold.
Lesson two: Fail well. Or maybe you won't: Put yourself out there, give it your all -- and you still might fall flat on your face. But even if you fail spectacularly, you still win. We write about this a lot: one of the surest indicators of future success is how good you are at failing. In fact, this year the New York Times reported on some cutting edge school programs based on something called the character strengths inventory that is proving that kids who move through failures with a mindset of looking at them as learning experiences are much more equipped for success in life. (Look no further than world gymnastics champion Jordyn Wieber, who failed to qualify for the individual all-around final yet came back to nail her floor exercises.)
Which leads to ...
Lesson three: Take the risk. In other words, failure can often be the world's best teacher. First, there's the satisfaction of knowing that you've taken a risk and lived to tell the tale. And then there's this: That whole process of trial and error is likely to bring you closer to figuring out your own goals and how to get there. Maybe you'll learn from what you've done wrong and do it better the next time -- or just maybe you can use that failure to rule things out. If you can see that failure for what it is, just one more step in the never-ending process we call life, you may well learn something that can propel you forward. Or, as psychologist Ramani Durvasula told us back when we were reporting our book: "You'll always get over a failure. But regret? It's not recoverable."
That risk-taking, the idea of allowing ourselves the courage to fail is especially important to today's women who are often navigating uncharted territory -- particularly in the workplace. As Elizabeth Gilbert once wrote, "We don't have centuries of educated, autonomous female role models to imitate here (there were no women quite like us until very recently), so nobody has given us a map."
And speaking of running without a roadmap ...
Lesson Four: Dispense with the shoulds. That's Gloria Steinem's line, not ours. More in a bit. I was once asked for advice from a very earnest twenty-something who wanted to know what women trying to make their way into high-stakes careers should do. And my answer was this: I don't have any advice, not because I don't like to dish it out, but because there are no clear cut, one-size fits all answers. For us, I told her, it's all too new. And then I quoted Gloria Steinem, who once told a group of college women: "Dispense with the word "should." Don't think about the way women should fit into the world. Think about how the world should fit women."
Which brings us back to my soundbyte on the nightly news and perhaps the best lesson of all from the year of the woman. The reporter asked my take on those women who were owning the non-traditional sports like Judo and weightlifting and breaking through stereotypes, and what I said was something like this: "Every time a woman does something a little above and beyond society's expectations, it opens doors for all of us. And I think that's fantastic."
I was overshadowed, of course, by an interview with a poised young tween in a leotard at a local gymnastics center. What she said she has taken away from this year's Olympics is the belief that women can do whatever they want and that they can do just as much as men can. "I'm motivated," she said, looking straight at the camera, "to do better than I think I can."
Girl power, indeed.
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